Matthew Boyd Reunites With the Tigers

© Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Boyd has been on quite the baseball journey over the last few years. After spending the bulk of his career with the Tigers as a promising member of their rotation, an unfortunate elbow injury in 2021 resulted in Detroit non-tendering him after the season. He signed a one-year deal with the Giants and spent the first half of this year rehabbing from his flexor tendon surgery. He was traded to the Mariners at the trade deadline and returned to the big leagues to pitch 13.1 innings for his hometown team in September as they worked towards breaking their infamous playoff drought.

With his childhood dream fulfilled and a clean bill of health, Boyd will now return to the Tigers on a one-year, $10 million deal with the potential for an additional $1 million in performance bonuses.

With his recent injury history, the one-year contract doesn’t come without its share of risk. And even if Boyd’s elbow is completely healthy, he wasn’t exactly the most consistent performer in Detroit. In 2019, he posted a career-best 3.2 WAR behind a 30.2% strikeout rate and an above-average walk rate. Unfortunately, both his ERA and FIP sat above 4.00 that year because he also led the league in home runs allowed. The long ball had been a consistent problem for him throughout his career, but the improvements he made to his strikeout-to-walk ratio seemed like they could offset the number of balls flying over the fence.

Sadly, he couldn’t match his breakout year during the pandemic shortened season. A hamstring issue dogged him throughout the campaign, and his ERA and FIP ballooned to 6.71 and 5.78 respectively. His strikeout rate dropped back to where it was before his breakout and he again led the league in home runs allowed. The start of the 2021 season was a little better; Boyd didn’t allow his first home run until his fourth start of the year and he took a 3.75 FIP through his first 13 starts. A lot of that improvement was a mirage, however, driven by some extremely lucky results on contact. His strikeout rate fell even further and then he injured his elbow in mid-June. He made two more starts in late summer, but his injured elbow derailed his season and he was subsequently non-tendered with his health up in the air.

The pitch that drove Boyd’s breakout three years ago was a revamped slider. He had debuted in the majors with a fastball-heavy approach and a shallow slider that wasn’t really an out pitch for him; the pitch’s whiff rate during the first three years of his career was around 25%. To his credit, he tinkered with that breaking ball throughout his early years in the big leagues. He finally found something that worked for him in 2018, adding some depth to the pitch; those changes pushed its whiff rate up to 32.7%, a career-high at that point. The next year — his breakout season — his slider ran a 43.6% whiff rate and opposing batters produced a paltry .244 wOBA against the pitch. He continued to earn whiffs with the pitch in 2020, but his results on contact took a hit, and when he started locating the pitch in the zone more than half the time in ‘21, the swings and misses dried up.

The shape of his slider was intact during his brief time in the majors this year, and the whiffs returned as well. Boyd started locating the pitch off the plate again and batters chased after it like they had before, leading to a 34.6% whiff rate. He also increased his usage of that pitch back to where it was in 2019, making up nearly a third of his pitch mix.

Boyd’s slider is obviously an important piece of his arsenal, and its effectiveness will likely drive a lot of his success in 2023, but there’s a third pitch he developed a few years ago that could prove to be a key differentiator for him next year. With his fastball- and slider-heavy approach working for him in 2019, he worked on honing his curveball and changeup in the ensuing offseason to help him be less predictable on the mound. Despite focusing on his other breaking ball during that offseason of work, his offspeed pitch wound up being the more impactful one the next season. With five inches of additional drop and four inches of added arm-side fade, his changeup transformed into a beast of a pitch with above-average movement in both directions.

In 2020, his first season with his revamped changeup, Boyd ran a 42.5% whiff rate with the pitch, throwing it almost exclusively to right-handed batters. The next year, he started locating it in the zone more often — just like his slider — and saw the number of swings and misses fall drastically. He didn’t have great command of the pitch during his return to the mound this year, throwing it in the zone just 27.8% of the time. That didn’t really matter; its whiff rate jumped to 58.8% and opposing batters put just five of the 36 changeups he threw in play.

With a proven ability to generate strikeouts with his breaking ball and a deadly changeup that has worked as a secret weapon since overhauling it, Boyd has all the pieces he needs to follow up on his breakout season, albeit three years behind schedule. Returning to a familiar city and club gives him a soft landing spot to rebuild his career after his elbow injury. For the Tigers, $10 million may seem like a lot to invest in a pitcher with some significant question marks surrounding him. Still, their pitching staff is in shambles after losing Casey Mize to Tommy John surgery and Tarik Skubal to the same flexor tendon surgery that knocked Boyd out a year ago. If Boyd is healthy and up to the challenge of starting full-time, he would slot in the middle of the Tigers rotation behind Eduardo Rodriguez and ahead of Matt Manning and Spencer Turnbull.

Courtesy of Dan Szymborski, here is Boyd’s ZiPS projection for next year, as well as a selection of projection percentiles:

2023 ZiPS Projection – Matt Boyd
2023 6 9 0 4.12 24 21 118.0 109 54 17 37 128 100 1.3

2023 ZiPS Projection Percentiles Matt Boyd (118 IP)
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 145 2.84 3.3
90% 130 3.17 2.7
80% 117 3.52 2.2
70% 111 3.73 1.9
60% 105 3.93 1.6
50% 100 4.12 1.3
40% 95 4.35 1.0
30% 90 4.60 0.6
20% 82 5.04 0.1
10% 78 5.32 -0.2
5% 73 5.67 -0.6

The early market for free agent starting pitching seems to be favoring players so far. Mike Clevinger received $12 million from the White Sox and the Rays signed Zach Eflin to a three-year, $40 million deal. In that context, $10 million for Boyd doesn’t seem like that much. Despite the risk, there is real upside in his arsenal and the Tigers are betting he’ll finally be able to fulfill the promise he showed all those years ago.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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